The self-making of a political superstar

ROBERT MILLER June 14 1976

The self-making of a political superstar

ROBERT MILLER June 14 1976

The self-making of a political superstar


Roy McMurtry’s nose is peeling and is slightly out-of-joint—a victim of over-exposure to the sun and the media. Little flakes of dry skin are visible, and it itches. But then, it is a sensitive nose, quick to sniff out a news story or a shift in the political wind. It is also a controversial nose. McMurtry’s critics complain he is forever poking it into areas where it doesn’t belong—pro hockey, skin books, booze habits, highway safety, even our courtrooms. McMurtry rejects these complaints with an impatient wave of an outsize paw. A slow grin creases his rugged features and there is a faint twinkle in his hooded lawyer’s eyes. “Aw, you’ve got to draw the line somewhere, you’ve got to make that total commitment,” he says. “Big Honeybear,” one of his political opponents calls him, and it is easy to see why. McMurtry is large (six feet two inches tall, 220 pounds), shuffling, good-natured. He is also very strong, very powerful, both politically and physically. One of his hugs, however affectionate, could maim. Big Honeybear’s nose may be bothering him, but he can live with small discomforts because he is tough, well-bred Irish tough. He is also attorney general of Ontario and a man who seems destined to become known as Canada’s Mr. Clean. This destiny is at least a little surprising to some of his old fun-loving friends, and to McMurtry himself. “I’ve never taken myself too seriously,” he says, meaning it. Maybe not. But other people are taking Roy McMurtry very seriously indeed. The Philadelphia Flyers do. So do magazine distributors, the police and his fellow-politicians. Says Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis: “I like him a lot as a politician. There’s a directness and candor about him that is refreshing.” People either like Roy McMurtry, or they don’t. Bobby Hull, for example, likes him while Bobby Clarke does not. It is almost a definitive statement. McMurtry is one of the good guys, one of the white hats.

“I got a little too much sun,” McMurtry says, scratching the nose and contemplating his cheese omelet. “I spent last weekend at the cottage, sitting on my dock and reading constitutional law. I find myself reading a lot of constitutional law these days.” Since this was just a couple of days before he traveled to Ottawa to argue a crucial constitutional case, the revelation was hardly surprising. Riding on McMurtry’s performance before the Supreme Court of Canada was nothing less than the future of Premier William Davis’ Ontario government. Under challenge was the constitutional validity of Pierre Trudeau’s

wage-and-price controls, which were adopted holus-bolus and without the benefit of legislation by Ontario. (Should the Court decide Ontario must legislate its own controls program, a provincial election could well ensue; Davis leads the only minority government in the country, and cannot be certain of getting anything past the provincial New Democrats and Liberals.) The federal government, taking no chances, retained courtroom superstar J. J. Robinette of Toronto to argue its case. McMurtry, with Davis’ blessing, decided

to appear personally to argue Ontario’s. It was the first Supreme Court appearance by an Ontario attorney general in two decades. It was also typical of Roy McMurtry’s style. He is known, after all (and after only eight months in the provincial legislature), as “Roy McHeadline.” Win or lose in Ottawa, more McMurtry headlines are guaranteed. Besides, McMurtry is no slouch in court, having only recently abandoned a $ 100,000-plus, high-profile legal practice for the less-well-paid pleasures of public service. Certainly, the old adage about the man with himself for a lawyer having a fool for a client does not apply in this case.

“It’s the traditional role of attorneys general anyway,” McMurtry explains, referring to his Ottawa appearance. “In earlier times they frequently appeared before the court on behalf of their governments.” He was hopeful of winning, but not overconfident. “There are a lot of encouraging precedents,” he says, and begins to cite them, enthusiastically, like a kid who has suddenly mastered the mysteries of the multiplication tables. But McMurtry, like all good politicians, is conscious of his audience, and when he sees his breakfast companion’s eyes begin to glaze, he murmurs: “I’m sure this must be absolutely fascinating to you,” and adroitly shifts the conversation to more interesting stuff. Pornography, which he can’t abide; goon hockey, which he won’t tolerate; drunken driving, which he can’t stomach. These have become McMurtry’s public hobbyhorses: sin and wickedness—the essence of politics-by-headline in the post-Watergate world.

Politics has replaced religion as the natural environment of sudden saints. There have been more conversions en route to Sussex Drive, Pennsylvania Avenue and Downing Street than there ever were on the road to Damascus. Modern voters demand political leaders of unassailable integrity, of moral rectitude. Naturally, the wily men who manage political parties and pursue power are happy to oblige, despite their own private predilection for oldfashioned (and therefore manipulate) sinners. Anyway, crusades against sin are inexpensive, which is not to say cheap, and ever popular, which is not to say uncontroversial, whereas new highways and social programs are costly and often boring to the voters.

In fairness to McMurtry, the Davis government discovered sin before he joined the team. Davis and the Ontario cabinet traipsed around Ontario in 1975 wringing their hands over violence (both real and simulated, as on television), teen-age drinking, runaway promiscuity and even the growing menace to the concept of the family as everyone’s institution of first resort. Some voters were turned on by this Tory crusade while others simply tuned out. For whatever reasons, the public declined to give the Conservatives a majority for the first time in 30 years. In further fairness to McMurtry, he was one of the most powerful policy advisers in the province before he won election. Certainly he helped Davis formulate the law-and-order stance the Premier adopted. McMurtry nearly decided not to run last September. “My friends were saying, ‘Roy, you’ve got the best of both worlds. You play a role in politics, but you’re still a private person. Why the hell give that up?’ Well, I wondered too. People were saying terrible things about the Premier, telling him to quit and everything. But I was telling him

to stay and fight, and I realized that I couldn’t tell him that and stay on the sidelines myself. So I ran.”

He ran like Paavo Nurmi, once the race began, knocking on doors from dawn to dusk in Toronto’s midtown Eglinton riding, a middleand upper-middle-class area. And he spent like Sky Masterson, pumping more than $50,000 into a slick campaign. He went into the election a well-known man—close friend of the Premier’s, columnist for the Sunday Sun, leading member of the Big Brother movement, lawyer for the Metro Toronto Police in a lengthy police-brutality investigation that received saturation coverage in the months leading up to the election. McMurtry won easily (he’d lost an earlier attempt to enter the legislature, being caned in a 1973 byelection by former municipal politician Margaret Campbell), and was promptly rewarded with the attorney generalship. “Roy McHeadline” was born.

Within days of being sworn in, McMurtry had triggered more excitement than the government had managed to unleash in months. He had opinions, it seemed, on everything and he was prepared and even eager to divulge them to the press, with whom he had developed a close and convivial relationship over long lunches at such disparate spas as the ItaloCanadian Social Club and Hy’s steak house. Furthermore, he was not willing to be bound strictly by the traditional limits of the A.G.’s portfolio, but was prepared to utter pronouncements on matters nominally under the care of his new cabinet colleagues. This penchant, only slightly curbed in recent months, has given rise to the

story that McMurtry has more enemies in his own caucus than he does among the opposition. “I don’t think that’s an extravagant statement,” he grins, “but, you know, some politicians don’t want to take on issues that are going to attract instant opposition. They think it’s okay to talk about problems in the abstract, but they don’t want to do anything that might upset people. Well, I think politics is fine as long as you’re accomplishing something. I know, some people think I’m in it because I get off on the headlines, but it’s amazing how quickly that aspect pales.”

McMurtry got away to a fast start as attorney general, and he has managed to keep on accelerating. Having offended Ontario’s rugged individualists by waging a cabinet campaign for legislation making car seat-belts compulsory (a promise the government had made before, but retracted once the cries of outrage began filtering in from the constituencies), McMurtry upset the social-drinker set by endorsing the principle of compulsory jail terms for drinking drivers. Next he enraged civil libertarians with his suggestion that police be empowered to set up random roadblocks, stop cars at will and rule off the road those drivers suspected of having had a drink or two (this idea would have given police powers traditionally vested in the courts). He moved to accelerate the judicial process and clear Ontario’s clogged court calendars (more than 300,000 minor traffic offenses cluttered the system in Toronto alone) by appointing 40 judges. He introduced legislation removing anomalies in family law.

But it wasn’t until he took up his brother Bill’s feud with the pro hockey establishment that McMurtry touched a national nerve and began to make a national name as Mr. Clean, the Goodie-TwoShoes from Hog Town. On the surface, the image was silly. Roy McMurtry is no Caspar Milquetoast. He was the captain of the University of Toronto’s varsity football team (at which time Davis got to know and admire him), played “physical but not dirty” intercollegiate hockey for Osgoode Hall law school (Toronto Toros owner Johnny F. Bassett once snorted that McMurtry was “the dirtiest player I’ve ever seen”), and has been known to raise his share of mischief around town. Yet, suddenly, he was playing pacifist in a war with the moguls and meatheads of the National Hockey League. The law applied to hockey players, too, McMurtry informed the police, who promptly laid a charge against Detroit Red Wings journeyman Dan Maloney. Maloney had engaged in a televised fight with the Maple Leafs’ Brian Glennie, no daisy himself. The hockey establishment was outraged. NHL president Clarence Campbell said for the umpteenth time that pro hockey could police itself (an odd assertion, given the fact that owners of NHL franchises have done time in non-NHL prisons); coaches and players alike adivised him to mind his own business. But McMurtry was unmoved. “When I see thousands of kids getting discouraged from playing hockey, being intimidated by their so-called coaches, then my idea of individual liberty is offended . . . What kids learn in this context [sports] is very important to the values they establish in later life . . . We wouldn’t let these people [minor coaches, pro players] go into a classroom to teach our kids, so why should they guide them in hockey?” McMurtry’s position has been supported by the other attorneys general in Canada, who must marvel at his apparent political freedom (to say nothing of his long and cosy relationship with his Premier). A meeting of the A.G.s in Calgary recently passed a unanimous resolution endorsing McMurtry’s stand on hockey, violence and the law. Since the Maloney case, three other NHL players—-all with Philadelphia Flyers—have been charged as a result of incidents in a Stanley Cup playoff game in Toronto. The Philadelphia charges triggered yet another round of McMurtry headlines, and contributed to his steady flow of anonymous hate mail.

Roy McMurtry won’t say so, but hockey should not have messed around with his brother. William R. McMurtry, QC, conducted a one-man inquiry into hockey violence for the Davis government in 1974. He wrote a report scathing to the NHL brass, who reacted by treating it with contempt. The public, however, reacted differently and the government realized it was an issue where feelings ran deep. Not much happened, though, until Roy became attorney general. “There’s a streak of the Irish ‘get-even’ mentality in the McMurtry family,” says a friend of Roy’s. “It’s something like the Kennedys were. You know. ‘Don’t get mad, get even.’ ”

Certainly, the origins of many of Roy McMurtry’s opinions can be traced to his family, one of the most gifted in Canada. At 44, Roy is the oldest son of the late R. Roy McMurtry, a prominent Toronto lawyer. His mother, Elizabeth, is a scholar and a writer. His brothers have made their own names well known—Bill, 42, as a publicspirited lawyer; John, 37, as a former pro football player with the Calgary Stampeders and now as a Marxist-leaning professor at the University of Guelph; and Bob, 35, as a surgeon who has worked in Africa and now practises in Toronto. The McMurtry boys were privileged to attend the best schools and to take part in the regular and informed family discussions that laid the groundwork for the essential decency evident in Roy’s makeup today. Although he appears to the public as something of a law-and-order freak, McMurtry actually is a civil libertarian, a so-called Red Tory with opinions on most issues (capital punishment, social welfare programs) far to the left of traditional Ontario Conservatism. Observes the NDP’S Lewis: “I think he’s a strong civil libertarian by instinct ... He has a profound respect for the law, for the judicial process. He’s doing

some very good things about important reforms ... substantial reforms in areas like family law.”

Roy and Ria McMurtry have three boys and three girls, ranging in age from eight to 18. It was one of the girls, Erin, 11, who launched McMurtry’s latest headlinegrabber—a war on smut. One day this spring, Erin walked into a variety store near the family home to buy a comic book. On the magazine rack she was confronted by a selection of full-color skin books with covers explicit enough to upset her. She told her dad, and her dad decided to take a look for himself. What he saw, he says, was “depraved filth” being hawked in full view of children. McMurtry spoke out, saying that depictions of sex and violence had gone too far. The Ontario Provincial Police, meantime, had been investigating the sex-oriented magazine field and shortly after the attorney general delivered himself of some outraged comments to the Toronto Star the police laid 13 charges against three Ontario magazine distributors and their executives.*

McMurtry says the timing of the charges disturbed him, because he feared many people would assume he’d instructed the OPP to pounce. “I can’t stress enough that that was not the case. It’s the police who do the charging, not the attorney general’s office. Charges would have been laid if there had not been a peep in the press. It’s just a case of the police going about their business.” He agrees that obscenity definitions vary from individual to individual and does not dispute the libertarians’ contention that censorship is a distasteful area for governments to occupy. But, he says, “It’s one thing to be a small-L liberal and quite another to just sort of turn your back on the excesses in your community . . . There are a lot of little people who feel that government has turned its back on them, people who’ve grown up with certain standards of decency. Their confidence in the whole system is being eroded, and that is something we simply can’t afford.”

Roy McMurtry, who admits there have been times when he shouldn’t have driven his car but who insists that today he would clap himself in jail for such behavior (“Look, as a lawyer I’ve seen the immense personal tragedies that happen when you mix alcohol and cars”) scoffs at the Mr. Clean image. “There’s a lot of hypocrisy involved . . . I’m no saint, and never have been.” With that, Big Honeybear rises from the table to return to his constitutional law studies. At his limousine, he pauses, and says: “We’ll get together soon. The family will be away, and I’ll be in the mood for some raucous company.” A big night looms at Hy’s. ROBERT MILLER

*Including a Maclean-Hunter subsidiary, Metro To-

ronto News Co. Ltd. which distributes 1,500 magazine titles—both Canadian and foreign—in southern Ontario. In addition to Metro Toronto News, the OPP charged Maclean-Hunter President Donald G. Campbell, vice-president (finance) Lome R. Clark, and Metro

Toronto News executive vice-president James B. Neill with conspiracy to distribute obscene publications.